“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while that you shouldn’t have fucked with? That’s me.”
– Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski
Clint Eastwood is not just an actor, he is an American institution. If they ever make a place on Mount Rushmore for iconic badasses his mug should be the first one etched up there, that is, if they can find suitably hard enough granite for his likeness.
I, like many, grew up learning what it meant to be a ‘real man’ by watching movies like Dirty Harry, The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, and Unforgiven. His catch phrases and mannerisms are timeless and deserving of being encased in a time capsule.
Alas, it is a sad thing watching one’s heroes grow into their latter years, but if you’re assuming Clint is just going to idle away the years in a rocking chair then you’ve got another thing coming.
In this latest picture he plays a man who is equal parts Dirty Harry and Archie Bunker. The always agitated Walt Kowalski, who proudly served in Korea, returned home, married ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ according to him, and raised two sons all the while working at the Ford Factory in Detroit, (the same factory that produced his prized 1972 Gran Torino) is now a lonely widower who is pressed about on all sides by his spoiled family, unfriendly neighbors, and other people who are a constant source of frustration and consternation for him.
His old neighborhood has undergone a lot of changes since he and his family moved in back in the 50s, and his two sons who he has a distant relationship with at best, have also moved on with the times, however, Walt is a man for whom time stands still it seems.
He was born in an era in which it was the commonly accepted thing for Blacks, Asians, and other minorities to be referred to simply as spooks, gooks, and dozens of other epithets that Mr. Kowalski must’ve spent years memorizing and putting to good use.
If you’re thinking this movie will be mainly about him softening his vocabulary and becoming more politically correct for this new century, then you’ve greatly misjudged this film.
It’s not a racist film per se, but it’s a film that deals with racism in an honest and unfiltered manner which might be too much for some modern audiences to handle.
I have to be honest though and admit I did get much delight in seeing the old Clint Eastwood mannerisms back in full force here with every biting remark that came out of his mouth. The grimace, the glare, and the classic growling tone in which he utters every single line of dialogue in the movie allows Eastwood to get away with lines that other actors wouldn’t dare touch with a ten foot pole.
As when he tells one young Asian Ruffian who is trespassing on his lawn that he would ‘blow a hole in his face and sleep like a baby tonight…’ you don’t for one second doubt that he is telling the truth.
Then there’s the way you see him coming to a slow but sure, ‘boiling rage’ climax in a scene where his son and his son’s wife try to cheerfully pitch the idea of moving him into a ‘retirement community’ that is at once both poignant and also very humorous.
Without spoiling too much, the main storyline in the movie focuses on Walt’s next door neighbors, a Hmong family (Walt can’t pronounce it correctly either so don’t worry…) and especially a teenage boy named Tao; whom he reluctantly takes under his wing and mentors him in the ways of how to walk, talk and act like a man.
Their relationship gets off to a rather rocky start though after he catches Tao trying to steal his prized Gran Torino as an initiation act to get into his cousin’s Asian street gang. Along the way Walt is also persistently pestered by an eager young priest who promised Walt’s wife before she died that he would watch over him and get him to go to confession at least once.
The numerous gangs that have infested the neighborhood provide an ever present menace to Tao, his sister, and his family who befriend Walt after he runs a group of them off his lawn one night.
Walt, who is not exactly the most sociable person in the world comes to find after a short time of getting to know these people that he has more in common with these ‘gooks’ than he does his own family in many ways.
That’s the basic set-up anyway, other scenes see Walt playfully, although I hesitate to use such a word here, toss around racial insults with his local barber whom he has developed somewhat of a friendship with over the years.
The end of the film achieves its goals and ties everything together nicely, but the way in which it does it will definitely catch you off guard and stay with you for a long time to come.
After watching this film on two occasions it struck me that this was very much a modern day reworking of John Wayne’s classic final picture ‘The Shootist’ (there are a few subtle nods to it if you watch closely, although it doesn’t imitate or seek to recreate its ending), where people in a small town pestered a dying gunfighter who just wanted to be left alone.
Hopefully this will not be Eastwood’s final outing though, as he showed here that, even at 78 years old that he still has enough energy and grit to carry an entire movie, one which he also had the burden of directing.
There are lots of fun moments here for Eastwood fans, but the movie is never intended to be purely comedic or just another popcorn action flick.
This is a movie in tune with every subtle facial movement, and every elongated breath of its star actor. It definitely helps that you have the ready made Eastwood persona to build on, but this film does not rest on that persona, it deepens it and expands upon it.
Much like ‘Unforgiven’ revealed new facets of Eastwood’s classic cowboy characters Gran Torino greatly develops upon the ‘Dirty Harry’ persona so much so that you could easily see this film as almost an add on to that series with a few simple changes to the script.
This is a movie for which Eastwood deserves Oscars for both best Director, and best Actor. If you have like me, spent a good portion of your life enjoying his previous work, you will be greatly stirred and moved by Gran Torino.
See it as soon as possible.